MicroFest Records is a new label that grew out of MicroFest, which calls itself “The world’s premier festival of microtonal music.” The festival was founded in 1997 by John Schneider and is co-directed with Schneider by pianist Aron Kallay and composer Bill Alves. The first round of releases of recordings include both live performances from past festivals and world premiere studio recordings. One of those studio recordings is an album of two compositions for violin and gamelan by Alves. The album is entitled Mystic Canyon, which is also the title of the first composition. The remaining five tracks are devoted to a concerto for violin and gamelan. The violinist is Susan Jensen, performing with the HMC American Gamelan conducted by Alves. (HMC stands for Harvey Mudd College, one of the Claremont Colleges in southern California where Alves teaches.)
Much of Alves’ knowledge about gamelan comes from his having used a 1993–94 Fulbright fellowship to travel to Indonesia. I have to observe at this point that I happened to be working in Singapore at that time. I knew about Alves through his activity on rec.music.classical (and he knew about me); so we had the opportunity to meet briefly when we were both in Southeast Asia. While working in Singapore, my recreational travels took me to both Java (specifically Yogyakarta) and Bali, where I enjoyed numerous performances of music and dance.
Prior to those trips, my knowledge of gamelan came from two North American composers, Colin McPhee from Canada and Lou Harrison from the United States. Both of these composers tended to interpret the Eastern music they heard in Western terms, particularly with the use of equal-tempered tuning for performance by Western instruments. There was also a tendency to frame the music in Western structures. Thus, as an example, McPhee described his “Tabuh-Tabuhan” as a “Toccata for Orchestra and Two Pianos;” and the middle movement is called “Nocturne.” (Note, also, that the use of two pianos pretty much makes equal temperament mandatory.)
While my own experience was limited, it was enough to form basic impressions of the distinctions between the Javanese and Balinese styles. The music of Java tended to be more remote from any Western sense of form. I remember that I would always see when the musicians would first gather, but I never had a clear sense of when the music actually began. At some point I simply recognized that it was there; and awareness of when it “wasn’t there” was equally subtle. Most of the Balinese performances I heard, on the other hand, had beginnings and endings that were more clearly delimited.
The selections on this new album show a sensitivity to both of these sources without trying to imitate either of them. The instruments of the HMC American Gamelan are Javanese, but their tuning is based on just intonation. This is particularly important when it comes to providing reference points for both pitches and intervals played on the violin. On the other hand, because of the instruments themselves, the thematic material tends to be heavily pentatonic, which is the scale that arises from a series of perfect fifths (in the integer 3:2 ratio of just intonation). Alves also draws upon Javanese approaches to rhythm and polyrhythms arising from superposition. On the other hand he tends not to draw upon the use of a large gong to demarcate the cycles of a complex rhythmic patterns. What results is an impressively “hearty hybrid” of Eastern and Western approaches to making music.
From this point of view, the performances of both “Mystic Canyon” (only about five minutes in duration) and the five-movement concerto are fascinatingly engaging. One is struck by the “goodness of fit” of Jensen’s Western sonorities and stylistic rhetoric within the textures of the HMC American Gamelan. Those familiar with McPhee and/or Harrison will find a refreshing alternative “point of view” in these two compositions. Those without such a background may find themselves curious to learn more about the source material that Alves encountered during his Fulbright visit.